Cheltenham Borough Council
The Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) Event hosted by Cheltenham Borough Council (CBC) was held in their Council Chamber on Wednesday 15th January, 2023.
This was the first time since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak in 2020 that we were able to hold this annual event in the Council Chamber. In the two intervening years we were constrained to hold it on line via Zoom.
The Cheltenham Council HMD event is organised in partnership with Three Counties Liberal Jewish Community (3CLJC). The Cheltenham Hebrew Congregation (CHC), Dr Stephen Blake and Dame Janet Trotter and is supported by Cheltenham Borough Council. The working party meets several times over the months leading up to the event to finalise the arrangements.
It was wonderful to be able to hold the event ‘in the flesh’ again this year. Some 200 plus people attended it and there were about 50 attendees on Zoom. It was well attended by members of 3CLJC.
The national theme suggested by the National HMD Organisers this year was ‘Ordinary People’, a theme which was adopted for the Cheltenham HMD event.
The evening was led by Dame Janet who offered some reflections on the theme. Darren Knight, CBC Chief Executive for Place and Communities opened the proceedings. Jack read the El Malei Rachamim Prayer for Victims of the Holocaust and Councillor Flo welcomed everyone to the event. Allan Sanis of CHC read the Shema. Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter KCVO OBE DL then spoke about his Father who had been involved in the liberation of a Concentration Camp.
There was then a communal reading of Psalm 23.
Adele Owen of GARAS then spoke’ for the Silent’ before we were presented with six in person or videoed testimonies of Ordinary People who had been affected by the Holocaust and other Genocides. It was very moving to have testimonies from people closely connected to the two local Jewish Communities.
After a two minutes silence the Mourners’ Kaddish was recited by Alan of CHC. The whole moving event then concluded with Simon singing a lament.
Stephen Blake had arranged an exhibition in the Pittville Room to complement and further our Act of Remembrance. We were able to enjoy tea, coffee and cake there along with our reflections.
We were invited to participate in this event by Gloucester City’s Community Well-being Officer, Isobel Johnson, who asked if there was anyone in our community who could talk about experiencing the holocaust. Our answer was, of course, Eva Mendelsson. Eva held her audience spell bound as she gave her illustrated talk. She described the fate of her mother, from a comfortable well assimilated existence in Germany to deportation to a concentration camp in occupied France and thence to extermination in Auschwitz. Eva and her younger sister were saved from this outcome by a French children’s charity who smuggled the girls out of France to Switzerland and ultimately to England. Eva issued a passionate plea to the audience to stand out against any forms of discrimination and persecution as it is an ever-present and pervasive threat. Other speakers at this event included Adele Owen from GARAS who introduced an interesting film about the house in Gloucester that was established to provide a home for 10 teenage boys who came to England on the Kindertransport: and Gillian Manning, who recounted her family’s escape from persecution in Lithuania to refuge in England and subsequently established a large shirt factory in Leeds. The event concluded with kaddish and a prayer from Canon Nikki Arthey of Gloucester Cathedral.
HMD Shabbat Service
This service was carefully planned by Rabbi Anna and the Services Committee to include the basic elements of a shabbat service combined with witness statements to illustrate the theme of “ordinary people” who acted as bystanders, rescuers, perpetrators and victims. Nine members of the community came forward to read these harrowing accounts from the Shoah and other genocides. It was notable that three of the statements had a direct link with members of 3CLJC.: Julian read from his sister’s book of the mass extermination by local people of the family’s Jewish neighbours in Lithuania before WW2 got under way; Tony gave an account of the work of his uncle who was instrumental in hunting down and helping to prosecute Nazi war criminals; Mark read a poem by Sylvia Cohn (Eva Mendelsson’s mother) which was written just before she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered. As Anna pointed out, the fact that we were all able to gather together for this service demonstrated the resilience and survival of our tradition.
Anna chose as our Torah reading the first portion of Exodus describing the change of circumstances in Egypt from the time of Joseph to the arrival of a new Pharoah who whipped up fear that the Israelites might outnumber and overpower the host nation. She used this to illustrate the fact that, in most cases of genocide and mass persecution, the catalyst might be a charismatic leader but further action would not be possible without the collaboration of thousands, often driven by fear.
Everything in the service worked extremely well and our guest, the Mayor of Gloucester, Councillor Howard Hyman, was clearly thoroughly engaged and moved by the occasion. After kiddush, we rolled back the partition to enjoy a splendid buffet and many people stayed on as Eva kindly agreed to repeat the much-appreciated presentation which she had done on the previous day.